A Talk by
Though the circumstances leading to this occasions are unclear, one night an extremely wealthy man and a very poor one found themselves sharing a room in a small village inn. In exchanging stories of their lives, the rich man was filled with compassion for this destitute fellow. In the middle of the night, the rich man decided to give this poor fellow a gift, one of great value. He took the man's jacket, ripped a small tear in the lining, and dropped a breathtakingly beautiful pearl into the dark space. After carefully sewing the lining back into place, he stretched out on his pallet. Then, thinking about the coming dawn and the joyful surprise his new acquaintance would feel when told about the gift, the wealthy man fell soundly asleep.
Waking with the sun in his eyes, he quickly realized he was alone. His fellow traveler had vanished. Neither the innkeeper, nor anyone in the street could help. No one had witnessed his departure. Eventually giving up the search, the rich man continued on his way. Over time, the poor man found himself in even more dire straits, often going to sleep hungry and cold, often wishing for stale bread to eat, always wishing for something more.
Many years later, the two men met again. The rich man was filled with joy at finding his lost friend and told him what he had done that long ago night. Aghast, the poor man tore off his tattered coat, shook it inside out, ripped open the lining and there it was – the precious pearl, his during all those years of poverty and despair.
This is, in many ways, a very sad story, a being somehow managing to exist, but barely so, and all the while, practically next to his skin, lay great wealth. Even as my heart goes out to him, my mind begins to churn. Could he not remember the weight of his jacket, the way it hung on his shoulders? Why in all that time had he not sensed the presence of this jewel, a jewel who's creation could be traced to a small bit of grit that over years of being covered with layer upon later of still hidden luminosity, had grown incredibly large by the time it was harvested? This magnificent jewel must have rolled under his fingers. Must have announced its presence every time it came into contact with the nerve in his elbow, or pained his bony skull as the thin material hiding the pearl served as his pillow. Couldn't he sense that there was something between the lining and the coat itself?
I have always been interested in the dark space, in what goes on between layers, in that which lies between conventionally recognized time and space, in that which would appear to be empty. What about empty spaces? Blank spaces? We talk about "drawing a blank," "Blanking something out." The implication being that there is something that can be erased, can be wiped out. That something once occupied a space devoted to remembrance, does not anymore. Sometimes there is an immediately efficient retrieval mechanism at work, and sometimes there is no retrieval. In between and surrounding immediate recall and no recall, lies an incredibly complex, awe-inspiring field of possibilities. Much has been discovered about the mind and its workings. While our understanding appears to be great, it would seem that we might only have begun to scratch the surface. Identification of types of memory, the ways they might function and interact, and are stored, has been of interest for century upon century. Access to memories, of which we know and have known, is very uncertain. I suspect for most of us, even thinking about the complexities of remembrance; the neurochemical, neurobiological, neuropsychological aspects of memory, and understanding the complex interplay of all that goes into our ability to formulate, organize, retain or store thought, is overwhelming. Any idea of developing more than a cursory understanding seems daunting, but it is fascinating.
What has to happen, or does happen, when memory of an incident from childhood arises; when the color blue, the notes of a particular base line, the scent of Lilly-of-the-Valley, the taste of blackberry ice-cream, or the lightest touch triggers something in the mind? Some-thing surfaces that we find familiar, that we recognize or remember. To think about memory though, is on some level, to assume the existence of an ongoing entity, of continuity, accumulation, of history. Selfhood is implied in memory as it contributes to the belief that I am the same person from moment to moment, the same person from that time to this time, whatever the increment of measure.
How does memory with its implied characteristics fit with the Buddhist doctrine of anatman, or no self? After all, if there is no fixed, abiding self, what or who is doing the remembering?There are different ways of talking about self. Sometimes we refer to "little self" and "big self," "little" referring to the self-conscious, self absorbed, self-identity-bound being. The realm of "big self" refers to that which is beyond duality, both unobstructed and undifferentiated. Sometimes the designations conventional and ultimate are used, although I prefer the term "mere self" – nothing more or less than this bag of bones. This collection of skandhas: form, feelings, perceptions, thoughts, consciousness, is without a lasting, independent identity of its own, and is only the result of cause and effect. The term "mere self" is appealing because it points to the insubstantiality of the self. The "big self/little self" terminology fails to repudiate the notion of a self.
Another take, with perhaps a touch of whimsy, might be that Buddhists want to find a way to live in this world – respond to it emotionally, and take it seriously intellectually, but not be bound by any of it. This requires a delicate balance between the two intellectual poles of the Middle Path.
The particular manifestations of memory having to do with body, mind, and repetition interest me.
Our bodies appear to carry memories. Our bodies and minds also appear to work together in creating not just memories, but the very conditions that are being remembered. In October of 1987, I came upon the Sunday Science Section of the New York Times. The entire front page was devoted to the concept of the brain being able to recreate the exact neurochemical conditions that had previously existed. Fascinating as this was, this concept was not new to me. In the early 70's I worked with a physician in a substance abuse program who maintained that long before a person relapsed by using alcohol, chemical changes mimicking alcohol and its effects on the body and mind had taken place. He firmly believed that there was nothing "dry" about what, in AA parlance, was known as a "dry drunk." He believed that the person so afflicted was experiencing the same effects as he would from actually drinking alcohol. On one hand this is very scary. On the other what might this imply about the human ability to recreate wellness?
The Buddha apparently declined to speak about certain things, things about which he had no direct experience. As an example, questions concerning dying, or what happens after death were adroitly deflected. Remembering that Buddhism is sometimes seen as a study of paradox, it should come as no surprise to remember that the Buddha's enlightenment is steeped in remembrance. From the scant reading I have done, it seems that there is relatively little about memory in the Buddhist Cannon. I have heard it suggested that in maintaining a level of non-attachment, in remaining grounded on the Middle Path, and in allowing for a kind of not-knowing or suspended belief, Buddhism has avoided the potential difficulties inherent in religious squabbles over what is so and not so.
A particular type of memory that interests me has to do with the body, mind and repetition. There is a sort of counter-intuitive phenomena having to do with memory that is enhanced or built upon in the absence of conscious effort or conscious practice. Appropriately, accurately or not, I think of this as body memory and as something that is only seen retrospectively.
An example that comes to mind is that sometimes just mentioning oryoki (the Zen monastic eating form) is enough to terrify people. They seem to think that it's impossible to learn or do correctly. They try and try, but only become more and more convinced of utter failure. Something happens and they don't attend an All-day Sitting, perhaps miss a second one. While signing up at the next opportunity, there is momentary dread, "I will never be able to properly fold a lap cloth or drying cloth. Never." It is while bowing just after tying the wrapping cloth knot, a flash of aware-ness occurs. No panic. No struggle. The body/brain would appear to have been at work, learning as it were, how to successfully engage in the practice of oryoki. I think that much of what we do here in the zendo is subject to this sort of learning. The repetitive nature of practice encourages the deepening of neural pathways. Our bodies and minds, our very cells, both as individuals and as a collective body, seem to benefit from this kind of "habit energy" at its best.
There are some things, things trusted in, that seem to be rooted not only in our core, but through our core. I trust that there is a memory of practice that is transmitted, that is offered, to all who will receive it. This offering has extended from the Buddha, from the Seven Buddhas before Buddha, from the beginningless buddhas. In a commentary on the Denkoroku, or the Record of Transmitting the Light, the story of the wealthy men is like this. I say the story of the wealthy men because even though one of them did not recognize his true condition, he had everything one could ever want, hope for, or need. Everything. For this luminous pearl, a metaphor for the true teaching pointing toward perfect enlightenment, was his. For whatever reasons, he had not realized this truth. It is the sort of thing that is missed if one is not paying attention, if one is not whole-heartedly participating in the very moment.
Perhaps perceived starvation renders one incapable of entering the empty spaces, the interstitial realms of our bodies, minds, and hearts. I sometimes feel as if I am trying to remember something, something that just eludes me. Perhaps I sense that there is something in the lining of my coat. One might think that I would have some memory of how this coat felt when first wearing it; it's weight, the way it hung on my shoulders. You would think that at some point I would have felt something roll under my fingers. I think that the clarity of our condition, the understanding of our true nature, lies within each of us. I think the riches inherent in this great gift brought from the sea, perhaps under the chin of a dragon, existed from beginningless time, will exist through endless time.
Sometimes I think I know beyond knowing that these things are so, that waves, brilliant with crushed jewels of the true dragon, wash over all beings. Traces of glistening foam linger until that, too, is not even a memory. No matter the pitch of night, reflections of the moon, the dewdrop, the black pearl found in the still luminous dampness, will draw those who have lost sight. This will be true long after eyes have disappeared and the calcified ridges that encircle them have been worn from the cranial landscape.
When a tiny, slightly dished area marks the place where sound once entered consciousness, a song will vibrate throughout, for the dragon's voice will not be stilled. The smoking flames from his nostrils having magical power all their own, burning this away, turning that to gold, singeing any remnant of hair while igniting barely smoldering minds. On the outcome of such a thing only the most foolish would dwell. Only from beyond foolishness could it be imagined that one would shield the heart from reflections of the moon, the dewdrop, the black pearl.
© Copyright Nyugen Liz Moore, 2018